' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Edge of the World (1937)

Friday, April 20, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Edge of the World (1937)

Rarely has there been as apropos a movie title as Michael Powell’s “The Edge of the World.” Based on the 1930 evacuation of St. Kilda, a teensy archipelago west of Scotland in North Atlantic, when the few inhabitants living well off what would have then approximated the grid finally decided to evacuate the island, Powell and his crew filmed on Foula, a different archipelago Foula in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland. There Powell and his crew were essentially were forced to live as those lonely inhabits of St. Kilda would have lived only a decade earlier. Granted, this undoubtedly arduous production does not seek to inform the onscreen product, not like “The Revenant”, but the photography still revels in Foula’s imposing cliffs. These myriad faces of rock are seen in imposing angles from far below and frightening angles straight down, and characters are often stuffed tightly into these frames so as to make it feel as if they really are on the edge of the world, forever on the verge of dropping off. That idea is foreshadowed in the movie’s prologue when a few yachtsmen happen upon the deserted fictional St. Kilda and check it out, finding a gravestone that reads, simply, “Peter Manson Gone Over” which triggers the film’s flashback.

Upon flashing back, we are introduced to rhythms on the fictional St. Kilda by a scene in which the archipelago inhabitants attend Sunday church service, suggesting an adherence to long-standing institutions. But then, notice how the attendees act. People nod off and have to be nudged awake. Andrew (Niall MacGinnis) and Ruth (Belle Chrystall), set to marry, flirt. The matriarch of one of the island’s families doesn’t even attend; she sits outside, like she already has or hasn’t gotten right with god and whatever will come will come. And so, this is the first glimpse that the order of the island might well be on its last legs, as if these people have already begun moving past what binds them together.

Those binding ties are seen in a meeting of the Parliament, a group of old fellows who comprise the place’s ruling class, of sorts. That they gather not inside but outside, not far from a high cliff overlooking the ocean, is telling, conveying a sense of how all their decisions are connected directly to the place, to the ground, to the roots, to the water. But their long standing values are being challenged, not least by Ruth’s brother Robbie (Eric Berry) who confesses to her and Andrew that in a brief time off the island he met a woman and became engaged, and that he not plans to leave, but plans to try and convince others to do the same. Even he is not successful in his twin efforts, for reasons to be addressed shortly, it signals that St. Kilda’s time is up, and by the end, when an infant needs modern medicine, it is a fishing trawler, the very sign of a progressive outside world that the Parliament fears, that will save the day.

When Robbie makes this known, Andrew tries to talk him down, and upon being unsuccessful, Andrew challenges his friend to racing up one of the island’s jagged cliffs without ropes to determine what’s what. It is ancient and not unfoolish, and if some slightly progressive members of the Parliament don’t wish to see it happen, others do, including Robbie’s father (John Laurie), which no doubt signals what happens to Robbie – that is, he dies in the race. Whatever the scene may seek to socially crystallize, it is, first and foremost, rendered with extraordinary skill, generating suspense with nothing more than astute cuts and framing. Close-ups of Robbie and Andrew on the rocks mix with those watching from below and above and are interspersed amidst long shots, mostly from below, to accentuate how these two men, no matter their rock-climbing skills, are at the mercy of the landscape. And if the editing is fast to begin with, it only quickens as Robbie’s fate closes in, making you squirm in the face of the inevitable, just like those characters onscreen watching along. It’s a sequence you could not improve upon now no matter how hard you tried.

It was peculiar, I thought as the sequence ended, how a movie that demonstrates the inevitability of progress also evinces how the moviemaking techniques of the Golden Age nevertheless got it just right.

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